Aiming higher: plotting a route out of the pandemic and towards world-leading cancer services

Posted on: 16th March 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on all our lives, including those with liver disease and liver cancer.

NHS staff have been working hard to keep healthcare services open throughout the pandemic. However, with resources diverted to tackle the immediate threat of the virus, inevitably there has been a knock-on effect in other areas, such as delays in cancer diagnosis and care.

Vanessa Hebditch, Director of Policy and Communications at the British Liver Trust, says: “Liver cancer is the fastest rising cause of premature death in the UK. Before the pandemic, only around 12% of people with liver cancer survived for more than five years. We are very concerned that delays to treatment and diagnosis as a result of Covid-19 could make these dire patient outcomes even worse.”

Cancer backlog

Around 40,000 fewer people across the UK did not undergo cancer treatment in 2020. It will take months, if not years, for the NHS to clear the cancer ‘backlog’ – all the cancer activity that didn’t take place, such as people receiving invites to screening, presenting with symptoms or receiving treatment. As a result, sadly, we’re likely to see more patients diagnosed at a later stage when chances of survival are lower, likely stalling or even reversing improvements in cancer survival.

The British Liver Trust, together with other leading health charities as part of One Cancer Voice, has signed a statement urging Governments across the UK to tackle the issue by encouraging them to:

  1. Direct resources to clear the cancer backlog as quickly as possible: by ensuring cancer services receive adequate funding to enable recovery of care and clinical trials. Additional investment should be announced at the next available opportunity to accelerate progress. This should include securing continued NHS use of the independent sector beyond March, increasing diagnostic capacity, funding the evaluation and roll out of innovative practices, and strengthening measures to support retention and wellbeing in the existing workforce.
  2. Continue to encourage people with signs and symptoms of cancer to seek help from their GP: by funding targeted and tailored public campaigns that raise awareness of signs and symptoms of cancer, encourage people to seek help from their GP, and build confidence that NHS services are open.
  3. Expand the number of staff in key cancer professions: by investing year-on-year in training and employing more cancer staff to fill current vacancies and ensure that the workforce has the capacity to meet increasing demand as well as time to innovate and transform services.
  4. Drive earlier and faster diagnosis: by substantially investing to refresh and expand diagnostic equipment, and radically reform how diagnostic services are delivered. Not only will this support ambitions to diagnose cancers at an earlier stage but also create a stronger platform for research and innovation into early detection of disease.
  5. Ensure personalised care and support for all: by meeting every cancer patient’s holistic needs, including appropriate mental health, wellbeing and practical interventions that improve people’s quality of life. This should include a holistic needs assessment, personalised care and support plans, and signposting to wider information and support.
  6. Strengthen the UK’s medical research and development base to accelerate improvements in cancer outcomes: by committing to multi-year funding for medical research, improving the commercialisation and adoption of technology, and better embedding research activity in the healthcare setting. Cancer research can be a pioneering part of the Government’s ambition for the UK to be a global science superpower.
  7. Resource high quality end of life care: by taking steps to improve capacity and provide high quality end of life care for all those who need it, an important component of comprehensive next steps to meet the needs of some people with cancer.
  8. Be bolder in measures to prevent cancer: by introducing measures quickly to restrict junk-food marketing on TV and online to reduce childhood obesity rates, implementing a Smoke-Free 2030 Fund to pay for measures to create a smoke-free UK, and increasing funding for local public health services.
  9. Reduce inequalities in cancer outcomes: by ensuring cancer care serves all parts of society, through robust data collection and evaluation, and introducing and reinforcing targeted interventions to reach those groups that need them most.

Vanessa says: “The British Liver Trust is proud to be a signatory of this important letter. We shouldn’t let the pandemic put the brakes on progress that we’re making in improving liver cancer patient care. In fact, we must go further and faster than ever before – so that the NHS can meet the rising demand of liver cancer in the UK and turn the tide on liver disease incidence to prevent more cases in the future.”